Can Group of 5 teams schedule their way to College Football Playoff consideration?

When Danny White arrived at UCF in late 2015, the Knights had just finished an 0-12 season. But rather than feel helpless, White felt hopeful.

He had hired a rising star in Scott Frost, and in just about every college football circle he visited, folks viewed UCF as a "sleeping giant," -- one of the largest universities in the nation in one of the best recruiting areas in the nation, with untapped potential across its athletics department.

UCF football had won a BCS game before White arrived, surprising Baylor in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, but for the most part, the trajectory of the Knights' program looked more like a roller coaster at Disney World.

They needed a measure of consistency. With his hand-picked coach in place, White got ready to tackle his next priority -- building a nonconference schedule that would help boost the UCF season ticket base with attractive home games while also enhancing its branding, marketability and credibility.

So he decided the best way forward would be to play two Power 5 games, one Group of 5 game and one FCS game. He was adamant about one thing, though: UCF would only schedule home-and-home series against the Power 5, refusing neutral-site games, big money guarantee games or even 2-for-1 offers.

"We're not about settling," White said in a recent phone interview. "We're not going to back down from what we believe in with equitable scheduling and building a power program here."

That philosophy put White in the middle of a raging debate about how Group of 5 teams like UCF should approach scheduling in the College Football Playoff era -- especially after UCF went undefeated in the 2017 and 2018 regular seasons with a schedule the selection committee deemed unworthy of top-four consideration.

Those twin experiences have made White more adamant he will only schedule home-and-homes.

"Going through all that reaffirmed we could go play three or four guarantee games, and I could punt on the idea of ever building a fan base at UCF because we don't have attractive home games, and I could do that to maybe in 2026 have some chance at a four-team playoff, but they're just going to move the goal posts again and talk about some other reason why we shouldn't be in consideration," White said.

But other athletics directors in his own conference and across the country have been more flexible in their philosophies. That contrast came to a head this past offseason, when White turned down an offer to schedule a 2-for-1 series with Florida -- with the proposed game in Orlando off campus at the much larger Camping World Stadium -- only to see rival USF add 2-for-1s with Miami and Alabama. USF already had a 2-for-1 with Florida scheduled.

"We've scheduled with the hope that the playoff would expand in the future, maybe after the next contract's over, and then who knows what the opportunities might bring for schools like us at that time."
USF athletics director Michael Kelly

White wants Group of 5 schools to have a united front when it comes to equitable scheduling, most specifically his own conference, which is trying to sell the idea that the American belongs among the power conferences in a 'Power 6.' But not all Group of 5 schools are the same. Although the philosophies are different, Group of 5 schools are scheduling in ways that benefit their own individual circumstances. UCF is in a far different spot than USF, the same way that Boise State is in a different spot than Utah State, and Houston is in a different spot than Tulsa.

But interestingly, the athletic directors interviewed for this story all said they are approaching future scheduling with an eye toward an expanded playoff, believing a move to eight teams is not only inevitable, but the best way for them to gain inclusion. And with more and more Power 5 teams scheduling nonconference games against each other well into the future, the urgency to beef up their own schedules has only increased.

"We've scheduled with the hope that the playoff would expand in the future, maybe after the next contract's over, and then who knows what the opportunities might bring for schools like us at that time," USF athletics director Michael Kelly said. "You still want to stand out and maybe that makes that playoff berth more realistic. In the current format, knowing it's such an uphill climb, I feel the only way it can happen is if you have the type of schedule where it's like OK -- a USF team that wins the American and beats Alabama, Miami, Florida would at least warrant that conversation if the selection committee members are going to look at it fairly."

Kelly was in the room for many of the debates surrounding UCF, as the chief operating officer for the College Football Playoff. Kelly left the CFP in 2018 to join USF, a program with the same untapped potential many saw in UCF.

USF is one of two American conference teams that plays in an NFL stadium, and with a program in need of a jump-start both on the field and with ticket sales, Kelly believes the most attractive option was to land home games with Alabama and Miami, even though they have to play each twice on the road.

"It's good for our fans and therefore for business and having been in the room and spent some time at least evaluating the various strengths of schedules that are out there and knowing full well the position we are in and striving to have the New Year's Six bowl berth or if it becomes feasible, the College Football Playoff type berth, you want to stand out," Kelly said. "It starts with winning the conference, and that's something we have to prepare ourselves to do. After that, I know they'll compare the other conference champions and we want to leave no doubt we can stand out in terms of that strength of schedule.

"It's hard for schools at our level to get one-for-ones with Power 5s and it's only going to get harder because you can already see Power 5s scheduling out other meaningful nonconference games way deep into the future. I could see a lot of dance cards filling up, so I thought we had to be aggressive to do that, and an opportunity came up with Miami and Alabama that made sense."

Indeed, White and Kelly believe Power 5 athletics directors are scheduling more home-and-homes against each other with an eye toward possible playoff expansion, too. Alabama has been particularly active on this front, inking home-and-homes with Florida State, Notre Dame, Texas, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech all the way out to 2035. Texas has home-and-homes with Michigan and Florida lined up, and Georgia has home-and-homes with Oklahoma and Florida State.

That explains why Kelly felt a sense of urgency. But what White and American commissioner Mike Aresco want to happen is for these schools to see UCF as a quality nonconference opponent and then be more open to scheduling home-and-homes.

"The truth is we're treated differently strictly because of branding," Aresco said. "Because you know and I know that if we were an official autonomy conference, they wouldn't treat us that way. They'd be playing home-and-homes with UCF. This is where the College Football Playoff committee has to step in and say those games matter when you play UCF and you beat them, you get a lot of credit for that. Let's not pretend that's a secondary win. That's where I think we can make some progress."

White believes there already has been a small amount when it comes to the conversations he is having with athletic directors.

"With an eight-team playoff, you can sustain a loss more than with a four-team playoff, but also quality wins are going to be more of a factor for who gets in," White said. "I believe that's why people are scheduling more difficult, that and a lot of schools across the country are struggling with attendance. We're not. So having quality nonconference home games seems to be much more important than it was before. I'd be announcing a bunch of great games if we were successful getting all the way to the signature. We haven't got there yet, but we're at least having people jog along with the conversation now, and we're being told it's because they see us as a quality home game. That dynamic has changed a little bit this offseason."

The one school the often gets used as an example of "it's not impossible to make a four-team playoff" is Houston. In 2016, Houston beat then-No. 3 Oklahoma to open the season, and later in the year beat then-No. 3 Louisville, giving the Cougars two more wins over top-five opponents than UCF had in its undefeated regular seasons combined. But Houston lost two conference games that year, and was never in the playoff mix.

Nobody truly knows whether Houston would have gotten serious consideration as a top-four team had it gone undefeated. It sounds nice to say in hindsight with no evidence to confirm that assertion. But Houston has been aggressive with its scheduling model, too. This season, the Cougars played ranked teams in Oklahoma and Washington State (they lost both). Houston has used NRG Stadium to host some of these games, including Washington State this year. That is something White is unwilling to do with Camping World Stadium.

"It was a very good deal for us," said Houston athletics director Chris Pezman, who added he's been able to get home-and-homes with Power 5s, even if it means playing a few at NRG. "We'll make more than we did in any one home game last year."

Pezman was not the athletic director at Houston in 2016, but even he admits, "I think not until we get expansion of the playoff do you feel like you legitimately year in, year out, have that opportunity. Right now, the way it's set up, I think it has to be a perfect storm."

A perfect storm that might not even yield the chance all these schools want. So a lot of nonconference scheduling efforts remain a guessing game for Group of 5 schools.

They're trying to figure out not only what coaches, athletes, fans and the selection committee want to see, but how the playoff will look when these games are actually played.

"It's so nuanced," Aresco said. "Scheduling is just not that simple."

ESPN staff writer Sam Khan Jr. contributed to this report.